Art, sex and domination in Middlemarch and "My latest duchess"





George Eliot's Middlemarch and Robert Browning's "My Last Duchess" are two Victorian era works that appear in the world of bad relationships. (If you were wondering why they both are so long.) Interestingly, both literature also depend on descriptions of paintings and sculptures to explore a skewed male female dynamic. This technique of using an art form to represent a second art form (for example, painting a statue or writing about a photo) is what high-quality academic types call oak phrases, coming from ancient Greek for "art-on-artwork." Remember that the 130-line description of the sculptures on the Achilles shield in the Iliad? Yes, darling, that's the stuff.

Most of the oak phrases used in Middlemarch mean our upstanding young heroine, Dorothea Brooke, who is constantly described in terms of portraits and sculptures. These artistic comparisons are usually drawn by the novel's male characters, who – who have torn themselves between her utmost piety and dark beauty – cannot think of whether she looks like a painting of a nun or a statue of a goddess. In their attempts to understand Dorothea, these men repeatedly reduce her to a variety of vivid and pure * pure visual art forms. Fortunately, the brave Will Ladislaw will eventually criticize these "women's beliefs" for not being able to convey anything really deep. So what does all this have to do with power struggles between the sexes? By symbolically adapting the men's perceptions of Dorothea with objects that can only be seen, Middlemarch implicitly means the term "male look" in the mix. And according to feminist theory, the male eye is inherently disruptive because it transforms women into the status of objects. (Objects like paintings and statues? Boy howdy!)

Of course, the truth is that everyone uses gaze to reduce other people to clean small bundles, not just the Middlemark men. In fact, we are virtually unable to reserve our superficial snaps for those strangers we see past – a phenomenon that the fashion industry could not be more grateful for. (Lens-less black frames, a cardigan and jeans that look like they need to be removed surgically at the end of the day? Hipster. Baggy clothes, a baseball cap and a jewelry-protected platinum grill? Gangster. Third hand jeans, a stained sweater and maybe not the cleanest hair Hobo or university student.) The point is to imagine that you can successfully set someone up based on immediate empirical evidence at best is a weak attempt to feel comfortable before the unknown, and at worst, a mechanism for exercising control over another person.

Which leads us to "My latest duchess", a scary poem that tells a dramatic monologue about a painting. (Ekphrasis squared?) The poet's narrator, whom we cleverly extract is a duke, begins by describing a portrait of his (most likely murdered) ex-wife, whom he always stays hidden under a curtain. (Very normal, very healthy.) He obviously brings out that she is happy and reddened and explains that he can only say of people's faces that they always die to ask about it. (Smile in a portrait? What madness is this!) The narrator is increasingly fixed about how she used to look when a "joy scene" spread over her face. Critically, he continues: "She had / A heart – how should I say? – soon became happy", insisting that her ever-sunny outline was merely evidence of her salmon morality. (Yes, we already hate her.) Clearly, their own neuroses project on an unhappy wife, the Duke chooses to interpret everything he sees as a subversion. And what better reason to enter into a battle for gaze than the fact that his wife "liked what / She looked at and her appearance went everywhere." (Eyes off, tootz!) ​​Finally, the narrator admits that, in order to put an end to this insufficient and inexplicable smile, he issued "commands" of some kind, which led to all smiles ending. (He might just have said one of his stories.) Now he keeps his picture hidden under a piece of cloth. The significance? Ultimate Control: Only the Duke can decide who should look at her – and when her image can look back.

Did I mention that all this happens during what is to be discussed about his future marriage? (You don't, you!) Don't worry, though; the duke promises that, although he expects a powerful break from his future father-in-law, the wonderful daughter is his only true "object". (Let's hope this doesn't involve a taxidermist.)